Damn right we’re talking proud. You got a problem with that?
By Bruce Adams
Illustration by Josh Flanigan.
I was born in Buffalo.
My mother was born in Buffalo. Hermother was born in Buffalo. It’s entirely possible that relatives of mine were watching in 1813 as Buffalo burned to the ground. Not that Buffalo has ever completely stopped burning. It continues to smolder like a poorly extinguished campfire, spontaneously rekindling one structure at a time. As I was writing this, my neighbor’s house directly across the street from mine ignited. I watched the gently billowing smoke while typing for about twenty minutes before I realized it wasn’t coming out of a chimney. Actually, the first hint something was amiss came from Angelo, another neighbor, whom I noticed frantically pounding on the house’s doors. Then in rapid order another concerned neighbor appeared, and another, and soon a slew of neighbors had assembled.
Firefighters arrived and, contrary to their popular image, they thoughtfully selected the least architecturally significant door to smash in. Once inside they threw tarps over furniture and took pictures off the walls, turning them face down. Then they doused the top floor with about fifty thousand gallons of water and extinguisher foam. Lynn and Mike, the homeowners, arrived home as this nightmarish spectacle was unfolding. Their two little girls were safe at Grandma’s. After the firefighters left, many of those assembled brought buckets, brooms, squeegees, shovels, and shop-vacs to help bail out our neighbors’ living room, which is harder than you might think when it’s raining from the ceiling. While Lynn oversaw the downstairs bailout, Mike and others drained the upstairs. Lynn was intermittently near tears, which I found notable since I would have pretty consistently been hysterical. Pizzas materialized to feed the impromptu work crew. An extension cord from another home delivered needed power. Friends and neighbors helped load cars and minivans with the displaced family’s belongings, and store their food in working refrigerators. Lynn told me her fleeting expressions of emotion were not over the lost material goods, which can be replaced. Rather, it was the outpouring of neighborly support that had her choked up.
A friend of mine, who is originally from another city, recently mentioned that he finds it irritating the way Buffalonians always talk about what’s good about our city. If Buffalo is so great, he wonders, why do we feel compelled to constantly say so? Well, maybe because in 1969 noted sports journalist Brock Yates wrote in the pages of Sports Illustrated, “A drive down one of Buffalo’s streets arouses suspicion of a mysterious covenant between an asphalt siding cartel and the world’s architecture-school dropouts. Aside from a few new buildings in the downtown area (a library, a magnificent bank building, an ultramodern shopping and office complex, and a burlesque house), Buffalo is a vast collection of yellow brick warehouses, factories, used-car lots, bowling alleys, and stolid, boxy residences with front porches, punctuated by corner taverns where men gather to talk sports, consume draft beer, and munch on a favorite local staple, cold beef in kimmelweck rolls, known simply as ‘beef on week’ [sic]. The blue-collar men who populate the city fit the mold of William Graham Sumner’s original forgotten man: the middling white man who works hard, pays taxes, likes sports more than ideas, and finds the modern world bewildering.”
Cold beef on weck? Really?
It’s ironic payback that the “ultramodern shopping and office complex” Yates so admired while overlooking masterpieces like the Guaranty Building was the Main Place Mall. Maybe it’s time to get over what is now more than three-decade-old bad press, but Buffalonians don’t easily forget. We’re not as stolid as our boxy residences when it comes to Buffalo-bashing (residences that, by the way, didn’t drop half their value last year). Yates’s perceptions are still out there in the world, and I get annoyed when I hear Buffalo referred to as the “Armpit of the East.” For the record, this makes Texas “America’s Crotch.” Though I’ve visited many other places, I’ve only ever lived in Buffalo. Sometimes I’m overprotective of my city.
So maybe gratuitous Buffalo boosterism is a kind of a defense mechanism we’ve adopted to guard against persistent negative perceptions. For instance, back in March I visited New York City during a record-breaking snowstorm. It knocked down trees and power lines, and killed several people. Though I was staying with friends forty minutes away in White Plains, I didn’t think twice about hopping a train into the city during the peak of the storm for a ten-hour walking tour of art galleries. While trudging from gallery to gallery, I mentioned to several people that I was from Buffalo. Inevitably I got the same reaction: “Oh, well, then this is nothing for you.” My reaction was a peculiar mix of pride and irritation and I wanted to answer by saying, “Yes, in Buffalo we usually just step over our downed trees and dead people,” but the truth was they were right. It was embarrassing to call this a snowstorm; it was more of a slush squall, really. Parked cars were still easily visible. New Yorkers were walking around with umbrellas as if snowflakes might cause permanent physical damage.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to play into one of the most popular fallacies about Buffalo: that November through March is basically one long snowstorm. Sure, Buffalonians understand terms like “wind chill” and “lake effect” and we do tend to wear shorts when the temperature exceeds forty-two degrees. And maybe we buy our kids’ Halloween costumes several sizes too large so they’ll fit over snow suits, but winters in Buffalo are not nearly as harsh as people generally think.
“That’s actually kind of a myth,” I patiently explained again and again, trying to sound nonchalant rather than defensive. I noted that both Rochester and Syracuse get more snow annually than Buffalo, and we only rarely have storms that bury our houses. We are not among the top ten coldest, windiest, or snowiest cities in America.
One gallery attendant curiously asserted, “That’s not true.”
“Oh, you’ve lived there?” I asked.
“No, but a friend of mine lived there.” Faced with such irrefutable logic, I dropped the subject.
We are winter-resilient, no doubt about it. A blinding whiteout isn’t about to stop us from barreling sixty-five miles an hour down the Kensington. We take pride in this. While I’m on the subject of highways, let me address another topic that’s an apparent source of amusement to people from other cities: Our use of the word thebefore expressway numbers, as in “the 290,” “the 90,” “the 400,” and so on. I have personally made an effort in the past to say “Interstate 190,” but it just seemed like a waste of syllables, the same way driving slow in winter is a waste of time. Perhaps people in other cities drive so slowly on snow and ice because they’ve never experienced the exhilarating feeling of traveling sideways on the 190 at rush hour. I have. Oh, and by the way, we actually can rush at rush hour because it doesn’t take more than twenty-five minutes to get anywhere we want to go … except over the Peace Bridge. But we are getting another bridge as soon as they decide how many houses to tear down and how tall to make it. Just don’t bet the Canadian change in your car ashtray that it will happen any time soon.
Let’s get a few other things straight. That which Pizza Hut sells is not pizza. But a Fish Fry has fish. How hard is this for you other cities to understand? The letter ais supposed to sound flat. And people in Cheektowaga knew flamingo lawn ornaments were cool before you did. Yes, we have our idiosyncrasies. Proactively listing Buffalo’s good points—of which there are many—is one of them. But I will no longer be contrite. I intend to spread the good word about Buffalo. I want to tell everyone: I live in a city where neighbors bail out each other’s living rooms.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, and writer.